Monday, February 12, 2007

Long Way Round: Vicarious Travels Across Asia

Frequently, a traveler finds herself jaunting between a series of transportation hubs. The backpacker headed to Europe normally explores larger cities connected by the rail system. Travelers to Asia tend to stop in only major cities accessible by large aircraft. But these sort of travels cut out the amazing opportunities available by road . . . opportunities exploited to the max by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman in "The Long Way 'Round." I'll just call them "Ewan and Charley" from here on out because, after watching the documentary, they are starting to feel like old friends (they even note this phenomenon when they meet the folks at Orange County Chopper).

This weekend, Megan and I indulged in some vicarious travel by enjoying the DVD of the Long Way Round, a documentary of Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman's trip around the world . . . by motorcycle. While neither Megan nor I ride motorcycles, we found ourselves drooling at the thought of setting off across these vast territories by road.

The trip began with what seemed like Ewan and Charley's insane dream to travel from London to New York by motorcycle. After months of intense preparation (self-defense classes, first aid classes, the desperate search for motorcycle sponsorship--KTM lost a great opportunity as this film could be the greatest advertisement for BMW motorcycles of all time), the duo heads out on a pair of BMW's with a camera man and two support vehicles ("support" is a bit of a stretch: for most of the trip, the vehicles merely allow the bikers to restock on food and film before setting out on their own again).

The route was daunting. From London they would take the Chunnel train to Paris. After crossing Western Europe, the pair traveled to Prague and through Slovakia into Russia. From Russia the team entered Kazakhstan (finding a very different country than Borat describes). After Kazakhstan, they reenter Russia before crossing Mongolia. From Mongolia, they make a third entry into Russia and travel Siberia's "Road of Bones" to Magadan. From there they fly to Anchorage, Alaska. Then, they enjoy pavement toward Fairbanks and into Calgary before dropping down to the US and crossing the plains toward Chicago and, finally, New York City.

The route meant 20,000 miles through often absurd obstacles. The joy of the adventure often comes through the experience of random fortune. Kazakhstan finds them at the center of bizarre media frenzies. They end up spending the night in the home of a random, underworld character who entertains with machine gun and guitar. The "roads" in Mongolia leave the group at the mercies of random passersby who can perform instant repairs. Finally, they try to navigate the Road of Bones shortly after the winter thaw, so the roads often vanished into raging rivers, leaving the travelers to hitch rides in the backs of passing trucks. Needless to say, this trip wasn't easy.

To avoid spoiling the film, I'll cut the description short. Megan and I watched it with hopes of changing the way we travel in the future. While I doubt we'll cross Asia by motorcycle (and my mother and grandmother just breathed a huge sigh of relief), we would like to start hitting the road more often . . . probably even starting in Mongolia. Traveling by road, the duo encountered the joys of empty space and open highway, often finding themselves in nearly inaccessible hamlets in Far Eastern Russia. These sort of places offer rich experiences and fascinating interactions unavailable in major cities. I watched the DVD and found myself growing both jealous and bolder by the minute. And I'm guessing Ewan and Charley wanted their viewer feeling those exact emotions.

We finished the series aching for more, and, as if reading our mind, Ewan and Charley plan to deliver with the "Long Way Down," a journey from the tip-top of Scotland to Cape Town. While I do not know the exact route (and imagine that will depend largely on political conditions), the journey is bound to be as harrowing and fascinating as the first. Megan and I, after crossing part of Tanzania, assumed that navigating large parts of Africa by road would be prohibited by peril . . . we're hoping that Ewan and Charley prove us wrong.


George said...

Check out this website for ridiculous cross-country treks on bikes. Except theirs' didn't have motors. Pretty cool trip-- I knew the guys at Dartmouth and haven't actually read the entire webpage, although I did get the updates from along the way and remember being thrilled with their narrative and stories.

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